- It’s listed as one of the top things to do around Bolivia’s third biggest city of La Paz and with approximately 200 to 300 bus, truck and car drivers falling to their deaths each year prior to 2008, it’s easy to see why this has been dubbed ‘The world’s most dangerous road‘.
Beginning at 4,700 metres this 63 km down hill journey manages to attract more than 25,000 thrill seeking mountain bike riders each year, which descends 3,350metres from the snow capped Andes to the humid rainforest.
Yes, there are beautiful views, amazing rivers and waterfalls that would have the most mild of nature lovers frothing at the mouth, however prior to booking my spot on one of Bolivia’s infamous bike riding tours I had to ask myself “Is this really worth risking my life for?”
“C’mon, Jarrod. It’ll be fun!”
Dodging land slides and on coming traffic, slippery rocks, questionable bike suspension, riding mere centremetres from 50 metre cliffs and no travel insurance makes me wonder how I ever got talked into paying to ride down Bolivia’s Yungas Road. I was honestly scared. The very thought of having to rely on my non-existent mountain riding skills in order to avoid any type of injury had my heart racing at an unprecedented rate.
“If anyone has any drugs on them, it’s best to hand them over now as we will be going through a narcotics check point.”
I wasn’t sure if our guide was being serious or this was his attempt at Bolivian humour.
“Are you being serious? Because I have a gram of cocaine in my bag.”
A Canadian in our group by the name of Devon had stupidly been sniffing the white powder in attempt to make his hangover a little more manageable.
“We’ll have a nice party at the end of the ride.” Assured the guide as he swiftly stashed the cocaine in his front zipper. The rest of the group wasn’t quite sure of what to make of what had just happened, but never-the-less we were ready.
As I gripped my handlebars and adjusted my over sized helmet I remembered reading that only 18 tourists had died since 1998 whilst riding the dangerous road.
“That’s not that many, right?” I reassured myself as I begun my descent down what seemed like a tarmac freeway.
Our guide had just finished explaining that “Death road doesn’t start until we complete the first 20 kilometres on actual road. This first part is just for you to get used to your bike and for a bit of adrenaline.”
Flat, smooth downhill road? I can do that.
As I rolled down the steep, windy Bolivian road it became immediately apparent that I was going to be the slowest. It didn’t help that each of my fellow mountain bike riders seemingly had a background in speed riding and were in a race to see who could make me look like a 105 year old man slowly making his way down to the local grocery store for some milk.
I wasn’t embarassed, I was however extremely surprised that I was the only pussy in our group. I seemed to be the only person overusing their brakes, making sure to slow down whenever I was reaching speeds likely to break bones If I was to fall.
“Breaking an arm in Bolivia is likely to incur some cheaper than average medical bills, but without travel insurance it’ll be in the thousands. Jesus, Jarrod. Why the fuck don’t you have travel insurance?”
I was trying my best to focus on the amazing views and amazonian landscapes, but the thought of expensive medical bills was somewhat of a nightmarish situation for me to have to deal with.
Just as I was supposed to make a slight turn I squeezed down on the brakes hard, but the bike wasn’t slowing down.
The one thing between me flying off of a cliff and living to see another day seemed to be malfunctioning. Another squeeze was just as ineffective as the first. I could see the corner ahead had a metal safety barrier, however it seems far too low to stop me from flying helplessly over the edge. My last attempt at keeping my body intact was to grind my already weathered shoes against the tacmac creating enough friction to reduce my speed. Although I swear I could smell the rubber on the soles of my shoes burning, it was working.
I came to slow hault just centrimetres from the steel safety barrier, but saving myself from a almost certain death with my shoes wasn’t anything to be highfiving myself over. I hadn’t even reached the actual ‘death road’ and using my shoes as brakes simply wasnt going to cut it.
“Oi, my brakes have stopped working! I think I need a new bike or something.”
I wasn’t riding another metre until I had a bike with functioning brakes.
Without saying a word my guide wheeled my bike to a nearby stream and poured some water onto its brakes. The hissing of overheated brakes being cooled by water made it obvious what was happening.
“You’re using your brakes too much. You have to start using them less or this will happen again.”
It was a classic case of less brakes or no brakes.
I had no choice but to ride at speeds that were slightly more risky to my health and well-being; something I didn’t wish to deal with. Was is too much to ask for bike with brakes that were able to be used frequently? Apparently, yes.
It had been 1.5 hours and we had finally made it to the beginning of death road. The first 20km hadn’t managed to do any damage physically, however mentally I was beginning to realise how stupid I was to once again get drunk the night before a dangerous adventure in a foreign country. Lesson never seemed to be learned when the lure of an alcoholic adventure presents itself, even if it is a risk to my coordination the following day.
“We’ll be stopping here for the next 10 minutes so rest up because the next section is the narrowest and most dangerous.”
I was the only person who seemed relieved that we were given a break. I was certain my fingers had developed early onset arthritis due to my incessant need to overuse the brakes. Poor suspension and unbearably rocky roads had given my ass a numbness similar to a local anesthetic, however this much needed break gave me and my beaten body some much needed relief.
Some rocks had come loose from the cliff face we were resting under.
“What are you doing Jarrod, get outta there!”
I froze. Everyone except for me had decided it was in their best interests to get out of the way of the falling rocks. I on the other hand, forgot that using my legs for the puspose of saving my life was an option. The realisation that this was a potentially deadly situation was brought to my attention as a 100kg boulder turn the corner and continued its destructive path down the side of the mountain. It was headed straight for me. Failure to move would result in certain injury or even death.
“My bike! Oh shit, my bike!”
I had awoken from my apparent trance and managed to find myself huddled amongst the rest of my tour group, my bike however, would be the first and only casualty of the day. As the group came to terms with what might have been we watched as the giant boulder came crashing onto the road and straight on top of my bike. The front wheel and handlebars had been crushed. It was as if the biking gods had been looking down on me, acknowledged the terrible condition of my brakes and forced the tour company for a replacement by sending a giant boulder down the mountain to pummel my already battered mountain bike. Perfect.
“Oh no, my bike. My amazing bike!” I screamed in the least sarcastic way possible.
My bike was replaced and the brakes were comparatively great.
Making it to the very bottom was one of the most relieving feelings I’ve ever experienced. My hands were spent, my ass destroyed and my need to ride a mountain bike in the near future or ever again was at an all time low. I’m sure that being terribly unfit has something to do with my general attitude towards physical activities, however I would never let my fitness level get in the way of an awesome experience.
So after experiencing some worse-case-scenarios I suppose you’re probably asking…
Would I recommend the ‘Death Road’ tour?
Yes, absolutely. The ‘Death Road’ is as dangerous as you make it. As someone who approached the tour as a one way ticket to the bottom of a cliff, it’s really not something to be afraid of. You’re bound to come away from the experience with some aches and pains, but the amazing views paired with knowledge that you’ve just riden down ‘the world’s most dangerous road’ makes the entire day extremely worthwhile.